In Memory of Sue the Storyteller

Last week I went to my grandfather’s funeral. It was a sad occasion, but he’d lived a full life and we gave him a good send-off. I can give him no better obituary than this one my brother wrote. This week, I learned of the death of Sue Wilson, a friend from my local writing group, Derby Scribes. She had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, went into hospital for surgery, and never came out again. I had known she was severely ill, but her death still came as a massive shock, one I think will take a long time to fully sink in. Yesterday I went for a walk round the park to try and clear my head, saw an old couple walking happily hand-in-hand, and ended up in tears.

I wouldn’t have described Sue as one of my closest friends, but I realise now – too late, of course – what an important place she had in my life. She was one of the most stalwart members of our writing group, always to be relied upon for knowledge, advice, bright ideas, and board games. She helped me immensely with her advice and encouragement, especially when I was writing my first novel. Her stories were always entertaining and her conversation always enlightening (if not always safe for work). More than anyone I’ve ever known, she was a born storyteller. She spent her life steeped in stories, whether novels, short fiction, or role-playing games. She could narrate literally anything in a way that made it sound exciting, and she had a quirky sense of humour that could make anything amusing, but was never at anyone’s expense.  Her invention never flagged, and nor did her enthusiasm – ever generous with her time, she helped all our group come up with ideas and marshal them into coherent narratives.

Needless to say, she will be much missed – not only by her husband John (and I don’t believe in soul mates, but if I did, I’d believe in those two, since I’ve never met a couple who seemed more perfectly suited) and by the rest of her family and friends, but also by all the Scribes, by all her fans on WriteOn, by all those who played the games she wrote and GM’ed, and by all those who did National Novel Writing Month alongside her – not to mention all the people she helped in her day jobs working with vulnerable children. She touched many lives and left all of us better for her influence.

For her funeral, she has asked attendees not to bring flowers, but to do something creative instead, and if that doesn’t sum up her attitude to life, I don’t know what does. Sue – if you’re somehow reading this in the afterlife, thank you. I will never forget your generosity or your boundless joy in story-telling, and I promise I will keep the story going.

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Motivation and Procrastin – ooh, shiny!

I gave a version of this blog post as a presentation at my writing class on Monday. You should have seen their little faces. I’m not sure if they were expecting something a bit more ‘inspirational’ and a bit less ‘unvarnished truth’ but they all looked a bit shell-shocked by the end of it. So here we go.
Let’s start with a couple of classical quotations to get us in the mood.
Ancient Chinese Proverb:
“A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. Then the next step. Then the next one. Then all the other steps. What were you expecting, a travelator? This is ancient China, not Heathrow Airport. Put your back into it.”
Latin motivational motto:
“Memento mori” (remember you will die)

Are you a procrastinator?
Well, you’re reading my blog post rather than getting on with achieving your life goals, so I’m going to say yes. Unless your life goal is to read my blog post, in which case, yay!

What causes procrastination?
It’s easy to say procrastination is a result of laziness, or a lack of clarity around goals, or an absence of motivation. But in fact, the most common reason, among writers at least, is this: fear of failure.

What are you afraid of?
That your writing will suck and people will judge you harshly for it? Well, here’s a little secret for you. Everyone’s writing sucks at first. Tolstoy sucked. Jane Austen sucked. Stephen King sucked. EL James sucked. Oh wait… so, ok, some people’s writing still sucks, but there’s only one way to get better. Guess what it is? Yep, that’s right, write. Write write write. Try to get feedback so you can improve. If you’re too scared to show your writing to people you know, try the Internet: Wattpad allows to you to post your work pseudonymously and get feedback from complete strangers. I’ve also heard WriteOn recommended, although it is part of the evil Amazonian empire. If you’re into fan fic, there’s An Archive of Our Own. Even if you don’t get any feedback, you’ll still improve just by practising your writing. ‘How to write’ books, workshops, classes etc will also help, but aren’t a get-of-jail-free card: you still need to write. Think of it this way: if you write enough, you might, eventually, not suck at it. If you don’t write, you’ll definitely always suck at it.
But I’m just not feeling in quite the right frame of mind…
Neither am I. But I’m writing this anyway. If you wait until the right mood takes you, you might be waiting a long time. I’m sorry to have to break this to you, but writing is not always easy. If you want to have written something, you need to write something. So grit your teeth and get on with it.

But how…?
If I’d give one piece of advice to aspiring writers, based on my personal experience, it’s this: set yourself a daily word target. And then hit it. Having a quantitative target provides clarity and encourages you to work quickly. It’s great to have a n-year plan, but plans need to be achieved day by day. And if you break your aims into chunks, they seem easier. Let’s say you want to write the first draft of a 90k-word novel in a year. 90/12=7.5. So that’s 7,500 words a month. 7,500/30=250. So that’s 250 words a day. That’s not so much, is it? You can do that in half an hour before breakfast, or on your lunch break, or when you get home from work. Now get on with it.
I’ll finish off with some general tips and tricks…
– Abstinence can be easier than moderation: try swearing off the Internet (or daytime TV, or housework, or whatever is your particular crack) altogether for a day, a week, a month, a year, or forever
– Scheduled time for writing is good if you’re busy. Make sure it’s focused time though – short bursts of eg 10 mins can be better for this than longer stretches
– Having two or more writing projects on the go at any one time can help since you can procrastinate from one by working on the other…
– Although working on only one thing at once makes it more likely you’ll get it finished
– Beware of ‘fake productivity’ ie spending lots of time on research, planning etc – sooner or later, you’ve got to get down to business
– And finally, when in doubt, write something. Anything. Doesn’t matter if it’s crap. You can always improve it later. Words on a page are always better than a void.